May (and a little of June) in the Garden

Somehow summer always sneaks up on me. Between a flurry of “oh hey spring!” weekend fun and busy-ness and my day job, I looked at the calendar and suddenly it was almost mid-June.

But with a mostly rainy May, I lucked into a few perfect weekends (and some extra helping hands, aka my own master gardener) to get everything planted between my garden plot and pots on my porch. The plants certainly enjoyed all the rain, and I appreciated not having to babysit them while they were getting established.

I think this year is off to a pretty good start, don’t you? (May 11 vs June 5)

5/11
6/5

So far I planted from seeds:

  • Beans–I’m trying two new-to-me yellow and green bush bean varieties this year. I want to make my dad’s three bean salad this summer!
  • Peas–I’m excited to try these Dwarf Grey Sugar Snap Peas since they supposedly don’t require trellising.
  • RadishesFrench Breakfast (my most successful from-seed vegetable for the past three years), Early Scarlet Globe (new to me this year), Cincinnati Market, Plum Purple, and hoping I can get a watermelon radish to take this year!
  • Cucumbers–I found a perfect recipe for cornichon pickles last year, and this year I want to attempt pickles from my own Parisian pickling cucumbers. They’ve sprouted, which is farther than I got with seeds last year. So far, so good!
  • Carrots–With Parisian Market carrots, there’s obviously a French theme in my garden this year. But I’m excited to try these since they don’t need much depth, and they’re just so stinking cute.
  • Nasturtium–I’ve never planted these before, but I like the idea of adding the flowers to salads and having a little color in my garden.

5/31
5/31
5/31

For seedlings, I planted:

  • Broccoli–I love the swirls and spikes of Romanesco broccoli, so I figured I’d give it a shot in the garden. This is my first brassica-type plant, and while the bunnies took a nibble from some of the leaves, they don’t seem to have done too much damage.
  • Celery–Celery is actually among the few things I will pick out of a dish, but some good marketing sold me on trying Pink Plume celery. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a good sales pitch (which, incidentally, came down to “It doesn’t taste like regular celery!”).
  • Peppers–Oh boy. I may be getting nearly as bad with peppers as I am with tomatoes. I’ve got:
    • Maule’s Red Hot–I loved these for drying and using as crushed red pepper last year.
    • Corno di Toro Rossi–A bigger sweet/hot pepper.
    • Mellow Star Shisito–Just for something different.
    • Chile Pulla–I can’t find anything about growing these fresh, but the dried version is common in cochinita pibil, a Yucatan version of pulled pork, which has become my new grilling obsession.
    • Fireball–I loved these last year and they produced like crazy, even in a pot on my porch. They’re like a sweeter version of a jalapeno, and I’m excited to try pickling some this year.
    • Espelette–I told you there was a French theme this year. I got some of this special dried chile powder in France last year and am excited to try growing the peppers themselves.
    • Padron–I think I planted one of these, but I honestly can’t remember. I hope I did, they’d be so fun to have with my next batch of paella.

5/31
5/21
5/21

And then there are the tomatoes. I…might have a bit of an over-buying problem that will turn into an over-eating problem come July/August/September. But, tomatoes! I somehow lost a bunch of the plant labels, so I’m not 100% sure what all I planted, I just know I have 11 (or is it 12?) kinds. To the best of my recollection:

  • Cherry/grape tomatoes: Black cherry, Honeydew (yellow cherry), and an as-yet-to-be-determined variety of red cherry tomato
  • Small/medium tomatoes
    • Japanese Black Trifele–I grew this last year and liked it enough to try it again.
    • Another small red tomato, another one that I forgot the variety.
  • Slicing tomatoes
    • Pineapple–I only got a few of these last year, but they were so gorgeous and delicious that I wanted to try again (and be better about fertilizing them this time).
    • Wherokowhai–One of two dwarf tomatoes I’m trying out this year that are specifically bred to grow well in small spaces but produce full-sized tomatoes. So far they’re growing like crazy!!
    • Fred’s Tie Dyed Tomato–…And the other dwarf tomato.
    • Purple Cherokee–I traded sesame noodle salad for this beautiful homegrown tomato plant at the Chicago Food Swap!
    • Green Cherokee–I got this as a freebie from the Chicago Botanic Garden. How could I say no to a free tomato plant?!

5/31
5/27
5/27

As for herbs, I have: chives (I cut them back and took home two pounds of chive–and they grew 6 inches of new chives in five days), garlic chives, cilantro, lemon verbena, oregano, bay, parsley, basil, winter savory, nepitella, spearmint, tarragon, rosemary, and borage. And apparently some dill seed got into my garden, so I guess I’m growing dill, too. Maybe I’ll try some dill pickles (to give away–I am decidedly not a fan of dill).

5/30
5/21

April in the Garden

I’ve been spying on my garden through the fence for the past month or so, watching and waiting to spot the first green tops of my chives. Last weekend, the first really gorgeous, warm weekend of the year, Peterson Garden Project gardens opened for the season, and I was out cleaning my plot, buying seeds, and getting a few cool weather plants in the ground.

Chives need a haircut

My chives are already about a foot tall and in need of a haircut. My oregano came back as well, along with a few radishes and a mess of dandelions. The dandelions and a bunch of other weeds got pulled, I added a little compost, planted some herb babies (cilantro, marjoram, and thyme), two Romanesco broccolis (a first for me), and got some seeds in the ground: carrots, radishes (French breakfast, Early Scarlet Globe, and Cincinnati Market), peas (a new-to-me variety that doesn’t need a trellis), and nasturtium.

Happy garden

This is my first year planting carrots, so I’m particularly excited about them. I got wee little fat ones called Paris market carrots that should be perfect since they don’t need much soil depth. Though as much as I appreciate the weather taking over watering duty since last Sunday, I think everything is sufficiently well-watered by this point and the rain can let up any day now…

Second-year Oregano

Next weekend I’m looking forward to getting tomato plants and other warm weather (we can only hope) vegetables from the PGP plant sale (I’ll also be making something to sell at their bake sale, so if you’re in the area, stop by!). I don’t have much of a plan for the rest of my garden this year–basil of course, sorrel (I’m nixing lettuce and greens otherwise, but I fell in love with sorrel last year), a few beans, a pepper or two, tomatoes wherever I can, plus another attempt at cucumbers. I found an amazing recipe for cornichon pickles last year and would love to make a batch with my own cucumbers.

Who else is gardening this year and what are you planting?

So long, 2015!

It’s been quite a year. More travel than I ever imagined, growing and cooking delicious food, taking (and teaching!) my first paella class, starting a new group of like-minded foodies…As December 31 comes to an end, here are a few of my favorite moments from the past year.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip
First crawfish boil in New Orleans in January.

Feathers fly

Beachy keen

The only acceptable icy slushy white stuff I want to see
The only acceptable cold slushy white stuff I want to see on a beach in Aruba in March.
Mashed and infused
Garden chive flower vinegar.
Sarma
My favorite meal this year–Sarma in Boston in April with some of my favorite people.
Paella, ready for eating
Barcelona paella class in May.

Sant Pau Hospital

Yes, the bottom rack is a little overdone
Slow-smoked ribs to kick off summer.
London calling
London calling.
Tower Bridge
London’s Tower Bridge in July.
Talking
Teaching a sold-out class in August.
Digging in
Sharing what I learned about paella in Barcelona with my class in Chicago.
Tomato season
Glut of garden tomatoes.

Start to finish Eiffel

Paris by night
Paris by night in August.
Good people and good stories
First meeting of Cooking the Books in November. Can’t wait for the next one in January!

And no reflection on the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of my grandpa. I think about him often and wonder who I’ll send my paczki to this year…

My grandparents

Cheers to an incredible year past and a promising new year to come!

End-of-Season Garden Update

I’m overdue for sharing an update on my garden. While most of the fall seeds I planted didn’t sprout, or sprouted a bit too late for me to do much with (or something sprouted, but I can’t tell if it’s a weed or something I did on purpose), there’s still been plenty to harvest. I even found some surprise fennel in a corner of my garden!

September garden
One lone poblano

My peppers got a second wind, as did all of my herbs (who wants a boatload of chives?). I’ve loved seeing how the 3 little radishes I didn’t pick in spring have become these giant plants with their pretty white flowers and spiky little seed pods. I’ve also picked a ton of green tomatoes that are destined for a pickle jar.

Radish seeds, before the birds got to them
Parsley needs a haircut
More chives

For my second year of gardening, I think it was pretty successful, despite some bizarre weather. Next year I’ll plan to do more soil amending/fertilizing before I plant anything and fertilize more throughout the season. I liked and ate most everything I planted (the exception being ground cherries, which I just can’t get into, black tomatoes, which had zero flavor, and beans, which the bunnies got to first). Lemon verbena was my favorite new thing this year.

Gardens close in a few weeks, and I still have a bit of harvesting and cleaning up to do. I’m planning to dump some lettuce seeds and see if I can get them to sprout like last year, which will be quite a nice surprise come next spring. Until then, rest up little garden! You earned it.

August Garden Update

An hour left to August, so how about a very last-minute update on how my garden did this month?

Things started small…

Starting small in August

Peas were pulled, tomatoes and tomatillos started hitting their stride.

August garden
2015-08-07 17.52.30
Tomato plot

I got my first hot pepper!

My first red pepper!

Those few little tomatoes turned into lots of goodies to harvest mid-month.

Tomato season
August harvest

I’ve spotted this guy hanging out on my tomatoes twice. I think he makes a good little mascot.

A garden friend

As for what’s coming up next, a few weeks ago I planted some end-of-season radishes, sorrel, broccoli raab, and lettuce, though only the radishes seem to have taken (I planted the rest of the seeds today, so we’ll see how it goes). I also let a few things go to seed (some on purpose, some out of laziness); radish seed pods are the prettiest things and I’m excited if I my laziness means I don’t have to buy more seeds next spring!

Elderflower Obsessed

Of the many things I love about my weekly farmers market trips, discovering new ingredients to play with might be the best of them all. Those discoveries led to my not-so-slight obsession with damson plums; my incessant crunching on a vegetable that most resembles something from a 1950s outer space comic book, kohlrabi; and the displacement of arugula as my favorite not-lettuce salad green by the lemon-y, spinach-y flavor of sorrel (which now also tops my list to plant in my garden in spring). One of the best discoveries so far this year, though, was a basket of these beautiful, and beautifully fragrant, flowers. Forget damsons, this year’s obsession? Elderflowers.

Handful of flowers

Elderflowers are the flowers used to flavor one of my favorite liqueurs, St.Germain. (The guy selling them kept telling me and a fellow curious buyer that’s its most commonly used to make a delicious and healthy tea. Personally, I like the liquor idea better.) Five quarts of flowers and a few half-gallon jars later, I had myself some projects.

If you, like me, are unfamiliar with elderflowers…you’re actually probably more familiar than you think. At least around Chicago, elderberry bushes are surprisingly common decorative shrubs. They’re what end up staining the sidewalks (and, more often than not, my car) dark purple from dropped berries come mid-summer. But before the berries, flowers. Incredibly sweet-smelling, almost cloyingly so, delicate sprays of creamy white flowers.

Elderflowers
A little bit of Googling led me to two ideas that seemed like good places to start: elderflower simple syrup and elderflower-infused vodka (essentially the starting point for making my own elderflower liqueur). Some citrus in the form of lemon and grapefruit (and a little extra citric acid for good measure), a pretty pink variation with some extra juicy strawberries, and I’m pretty much set for all my homemade soda and fancy cocktail needs this summer (and fall, winter, and next spring).

Elderflower syrup

The syrup is dead simple and utterly delicious. The grapefruit and lemon add a little bit of tart to balance out the could-be-too-flowery flavor of the steeped blossoms, but the flavor is bright, sweet summer all the way. The booze is still brewing, but, after I strain the flowers and add a good amount of sugar this week, I anticipate lazily watching more than a few summer sunsets under its influence. (And if you have any flowers left that you simply can’t cram into any other projects, elderflowers make very pretty ice cubes to fancy up your porch drinking.)

Elderflower soda

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June in the Garden

I’ve mentioned my garden a few times this spring, but I think it’s finally settled (and green) enough to share a few pictures and talk about my plans this year (which, if they’re anything like last year, lasted all of a month before I realized my garden had its own plan).

Happylettuce

Here’s what came back from last year:

  • Chives (obviously), plus a few lonely garlic chives
  • Borage (I’m kind of afraid of this plant right now. I think it might grow legs and prowl the streets at night looking for small animals to eat. But the flowers are pretty and it’s good in a Pimm’s Cup!)
  • A few lettuce that I neglected for so long last summer that they actually went to seed and grew new lettuces.
  • Two strawberry plants. I had five last year, everyone says they’re nearly impossible to kill, other gardeners’ plots are completely overtaken with them. I killed more than half of mine. At least my chives came back?

Here’s what I planted as baby plants, a mix of stuff from the Peterson Garden Project sale, some vendors at the farmers market, and a local garden center.

  • Tomatoes. Oh, do I have tomatoes. Let’s see:
  • Tomatillos, purple and yellow (so excited for both of these!!)
  • Ground cherries
  • Peppers: Carmen (sweet), Poblano (mild), Maule’s Red Hot (spicy)
  • Dinosaur kale
  • Strawberries. I give up on doing strawberries in my garden, but they’ll be nice as a hanging basket! I’ll stick with stocking up at the farmers market and just appreciate the novelty of plucking one or two while I’m enjoying the sunset view from my porch.
  • All the herbs. In addition to two kinds of chives, I have oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil (regular and Thai, if the Thai one survives falling over in the car and breaking off most of its stem), bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint. The mints, epazote, and bay are all in pots on my porch, and the rest were big enough that I split them and have some in my garden to get big and bushy and some on my porch for quick access.

May 24, post planting June 7, getting greener And this is what I’m planting from seed:

  • Snap peas
  • Mixed lettuce, half the amount I planted last year
  • Mixed chard
  • Mixed radishes, mostly French Breakfast, a few purple, and some others that looked interesting. Watermelon radishes are getting planted in fall, a mistake I realized too late last year.
  • Dragon Tongue beans, which I’m inordinately excited about. They grew so fast!
  • Green beans.
  • Cucumber…maybe. I might do this in a pot on my porch this year, since I only want little cucumbers and can let them vine up my porch railings.

All the herbs. And tomatoes.

Considering all the rain we’ve been getting, everything is growing along quite happily (except some things that are none too happy with all the water. Or the sudden cold snap. I’m looking at you, tomatillos, basil, and rosemary. And I think my rosemary has powdery mildew. Boo.).

Chive-Cheddar Biscuits

Now that the flowers of my chives are put to work, on to more immediate gratification–biscuits.

Cheesy, chive-y layers Chive bouquet

I will eat biscuits (really, bread in any form) with anything and love them flavored with everything. For my overload of chives, I finely chopped a good handful of the chives I cut back along with two big handfuls of grated cheddar cheese and a few of the chive flowers for good measure, the hard blossom end plucked off and the flower sprinkled in. They were spectacular, perfect under a layer of spinach and an over-easy egg.

Curlicue of cheese Chopped chivesand an errant blossom Layers of color Biscuitt dough

With all the herbs I’ve planted, herb biscuits are going to be a great option to stash in the freezer for any future biscuit emergencies (…don’t look at me like that, that’s a real thing). I plan on doing at least one sweet biscuit with the lemon verbena (doesn’t that sound good as the base for a strawberry shortcake?) and another cheesy variation with the thyme (gruyere, perhaps?). Rosemary and black pepper biscuits would be amazing along side lemon chicken.

Baked biscuitChive bouquet

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Chive Blossom Vinegar

I’m going to be ruthless with my garden this year. One of my biggest mistakes last year was hesitating to cut back and thin out a lot of what I planted. It felt so heartless to pluck out perfectly good little lettuces (they just want to live up to their full lettuce-y potential!) or hack off the better part of my basil plant. What I’m learning is that both thinning out and cutting back is better for my plants in the long run–the plants I leave get bigger, cutting them back encourages more growth.

All that is why that big bushy chive plant from three weeks ago got a major haircut and is now about 5 inches tall. It’s also why I have a jar of chive flower vinegar on my counter rapidly turning a spectacular shade of magenta and a double batch of chive biscuits in my freezer (more on those next week).

And still more chives Ready for its close-up

Vinegar will definitely be one of my go-tos for my extra herbs this summer. I’ve certainly planted enough, both in pots on my porch and in my garden, to keep pretty much everyone I know well stocked and still have enough left over to play with. I’ve got chives (of course), garlic chives, oregano, parsley, rosemary, basil, bay, thyme, cilantro, epazote, lemon verbena, pineapple mint, and strawberry mint.

Infused vinegar is about as easy as it gets. Use white vinegar in the giant industrial bottle or go fancy with white wine or champagne vinegar. Light colored vinegars are my favorite purely for aesthetics, but you can infuse red wine, apple cider, or even balsamic vinegar (finally a use for the white balsamic I keep buying from Trader Joe’s and never, ever use). Use one herb or a combination; I’m interested in making infused vinegars with basil, lemon verbena, and the mints for some great vinaigrettes this summer.

Rinsed v 2 Blossoms in a jar

Throw a few mashed berries, zest, or peppers in the mix (strawberry basil vinegar? cilantro, lime zest, and jalapeno infused vinegar added to salsa or guacamole?). The big trick is patience–you have to let it sit at least two weeks before the vinegar really well-flavored.

Mashed and infused Glowing jar of vinegar

And when I still have more herbs to use (as I know I will), chopping them up, mixing with a little bit of olive oil and freezing in ice-cube trays will be an easy way to keep them handy all year. In the meantime, I’ll try not to keep holding this up to the window to see how pretty it looks.

48 hours later. Still 12 days to go.

Chive Flower Vinegar
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